Monday, June 30, 2014

Walter Tavares

With the trade of Lucas "Bebe" Nogueira, a first round pick in 2013 who became a fan favorite at Summer League last season, the Atlanta Hawks opened up room in their long-term plans for another raw international center - Willie Tavares, a 7'3 giant from Cape Verde who plays for Gran Canaria in the Spanish ACB league and was drafted in the second round last week. To know why Tavares is such an intriguing prospect, you have to look at the rather unique way he was discovered.

Tavares was a 17-year old working in his family's store in Cape Verde when a German tourist on vacation saw him and was awed by his height. The tourist had some connections with the Canaria people and repeatedly urged them to go out to the islands and check him out for themselves. They didn't believe him at first, but they eventually saw Tavares for themselves and signed him, even though he had never played basketball before in his life.

Because he didn't grow up playing the game, his ceiling, especially on the offensive end, is rather limited. You are never going to see Tavares become a low post option or a guy you can run offense through in the half-court. However, when you are as big, tall and athletic as Tavares, you don't need to be all that skilled to be an effective basketball player. It's like Bronn's scouting report of The Mountain in Game of Thrones - the guy is freakish big, he is freakish strong and he moves much better than you would expect for a guy his size.

Tavares is 7'3 265 with a 7'9 wingspan and he's reasonably athletic - he dramatically impacts the geometry of the floor just by standing in front of the rim and waving his arms. On offense, all he has to do is hang out around the rim, keep his hands straight up, catch the ball and deposit it gently in the net. He operates at a higher plane than just about anyone in the world. As a result, he was tremendously effective in limited minutes for Canaria last season - per-40 minutes, he averaged 11 points, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks on 59% shooting.

At 22, he's a little older for a draft prospect, but he's so big he will continue getting better deep into his 20's. At the very least, he projects as a very interesting backup C who can match up with even the biggest low-post scorers, play interior defense, clean the boards and be a threat at the rim at the pick-and-roll. It's pretty much the same role that Noguiera would have, except Tavares is bigger, stronger and has an easier time finishing because of his superior length. When you are 7'3 and you aren't uncoordinated or unathletic, the game just isn't very hard.

That's what the German tourist in Cape Verde, Gran Canaria and the Atlanta Hawks all understood. In a game involving throwing a ball through a hoop 10 feet in the air, it pays to be as tall as humanly possible. There's nowhere in the world, no matter how remote, a guy with Tavares' size can hide from the basketball industry. There are 7 billion people in the world, but if you are 7'2+, basketball scouts will track to the ends of the Earth - being that tall is that super valuable. As a result, Tavares is a draft-and-stash guy worth tracking over the next few years.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Jason Kidd's Great Escapes

I first noticed Jason Kidd's political ability in 2007, when he maneuvered Avery Johnson under the bus and re-arranged the balance of power in the franchise in the span of one off-season. He was a consummate winner in the NBA - he made the playoffs his last 16 seasons in the league - not just because he was an all-time great PG but because he was an extremely savvy operator. The guy ALWAYS lands on his feet.

1997 - After establishing himself as an All-Star PG, he sours on the other young players in Dallas and gets traded to a Suns team on the rise. Over the next four seasons, he was the key player on 50-win Suns teams while the Mavs bottomed out under Don Nelson.

2001 - With Penny Hardaway breaking down, Kidd ends up trading places with Stephon Marbury in New Jersey, just in time to catch the rise of Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson and the collapse of the rest of the Eastern Conference. While the Suns eventually start rebuilding around a 19-year old Amare Stoudemire, Kidd is playing in multiple NBA Finals.

2007 - It was once again for the league's resident hobo genius to pack his bags, as the Nets were aging and didn't have the talent to compete with the Big Three Boston Celtics and the new wave of elite teams in the East. While the Nets plunged to a 12-win season in 2010, Kidd was safely ensconced on a veteran Mavs team with another Hall of Fame talent and an owner willing to write any checks to compete for a title.

2012 - A year after the Mavs improbable run to a championship, Kidd realized ownership miscalculated when they let Tyson Chandler walk and the team was no longer in position to contend in the West. So he weaseled his way out of a contract offer and signed with the Knicks, which had Chandler and Carmelo and could take advantage of the weaker East.

2013 - After one final run in New York - a 54-win season and a second round finish that looks like it will be the high-water point of the Melo era - Kidd got out while the getting was good, cashing in on his reputation as a veteran leader to snag a head coaching job with a Nets team that featured a ton of veteran talent and was ready to win right away.

The 2012 version of the Mavs and the 2013 version of the Knicks both missed the playoffs and I don't think that's a coincidence. It's not that Kidd was the difference between winning and losing at his advanced age but that he's always had an uncanny ability to protect himself and leave right before the party is over. If there's one pattern to his career it's that - Jason Kidd is not the guy whose going to be left holding the bag and cleaning up the mess.

That's something to keep in mind when you look at his messy departure with the Nets. He's a basketball genius of the highest order with self-destructive tendencies who knows how to watch his back - he's the Don Draper of the NBA. It may look like he's been banished to a basketball backwater in Milwaukee, but Jason Kidd always has a plan.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Underrated Draft Guys

At RealGM, a look at some second round guys who could stick in the NBA.

The Chandler Trade

Here's a quick scouting report on the guys the Mavericks gave up in the deal:

- Jose Calderon: His per-game statistics don't really show it, but Calderon is a guy in the middle of a steep decline. There are still plenty of positives - he's a big PG (6'4 210) and he's an absolutely elite shooter, so he can shoot over the top of smaller guards, and he hardly ever makes mistakes with the ball or turns it over. However, at the age of 32, he is rapidly losing foot-speed and athleticism and he's not a guy who could really afford to lose anything in that department.

This affects his game in a number of ways. For starters, Calderon can no longer really get to the rim or beat his man off the dribble. That means, as a PG, he can't really create shots for others. For the most part, he's become a secondary ball-handler and a spot-up shooter, a role he filled well in Dallas playing off of Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis. The problem is that a secondary offensive player whose also an atrocious defensive player doesn't give you a lot of flexibility with the rest of your line-up.

Make no mistake about it - Calderon is one of the worst defensive guards in the NBA. You can count on one hand the number of starting PG's that can't light him up. Conversely, on the other side of the ball, if you put a bigger, longer 2 guard on him, he's pretty much useless offensively. If he can't leverage his size to get a shot, he's not creating anything off the bounce and he doesn't have the quickness to turn the corner on the pick-and-roll.

In essence, if you are going to have Calderon as your starting PG, you need to play him with a SG who can defend either guard position at a high level (so Calderon can be hidden on the worst offensive player in the back-court) and who can also create his own shot and initiate offense as a primary playmaker (so the other team can't cross switch their 2 guard on Calderon and choke off your offense). Long story short, a two-way SG of that caliber is going to be an All-Star caliber player.

Dallas really couldn't afford to go with the Monta Ellis-Jose Calderon back-court next season since those two were such defensive sieves it put a tremendous amount of pressure on the other three spots on the floor - and when one of those spots is occupied by Dirk Nowitzki, that's not going to work. In terms of his overall impact on the game, Calderon was one of the bottom 5 starting PG's in the league ... AND he's only getting older and he has 3-years and $24 million on his deal.

- Shane Larkin: You really can't hold Larkin's statistics against him as a rookie. Not only is Rick Carlisle notoriously loathe to play rookies, he got injured before summer league, missed the first month and a half of the season and then was buried in the rotation behind Calderon, Ellis and Devin Harris. Nevertheless, in the moments he did get on the floor, he showed flashes of potential and my guess is he will be able to stick in the league long-term.

The big concern with any small PG like Larkin (5'10 170) is always defense. I still remember the game that brought that home for me - a home game against the Denver Nuggets early in the season. I'm watching the Nuggets warm-up and I'm thinking - who is Little Boy Shane going to guard on this team? He's not guarding Ty Lawson, he's not guarding Andre Miller, he's not guarding Randy Foye and he's not guarding Nate Robinson. 

The Nuggets don't have the best or biggest guard rotation in the league but they have a bunch of professional scorers. Forget Lawson, whose an All-Star caliber PG. If Miller, Foye and Robinson couldn't score on a younger and smaller guard, they wouldn't be in the league for much longer. That's just how life is for a 5'10 guard - you are going to be bleeding points on defense in 90% of your match-ups. That's the difference between playing in the ACC and the NBA.

Larkin is a much better PG than Robinson, but he needs to have some of his mentality on the court. If you're going to give up 10-12 points on defense, you have to be able to get those points back on offense. You can't come let the game come to you at that size - you have to be super-aggressive and you have to be able to stick 3's off the dribble. Larkin was more of a pure PG in college, but in an NBA game, he has to use his speed and scoring ability and he has to do it quickly.

I could see Larkin maxing out as an Isaiah Thomas type player in the right system - Suga Shane came out of school as a sophomore, which is crazy for a player his size. Isaiah, in contrast, was a four-year senior who  came into the league ready to make a point. At the same time, you can find little PG's like that anywhere. Pierre Jackson was a 2nd-round pick who could have been had for a song last season. Jahii Carson (Arizona State) may not even be drafted this year and he's got some big-time ability for a 5'10 PG.

- Sammy D: He's got good size and length and he's not a complete incompetent on offense, so he's still an NBA-caliber C who can squeeze a few more seasons in the league. At this point in his career, though, he's purely a backup or a member of a rotation like he was in Dallas. I think this will be more of an issue in the East - Dalembert can match-up with big-time C's but he has a hard time staying on the floor when opponents go small on him.

He can't really take advantage of smaller players on offense and his defense is no longer at the level where you can play him big minutes as a one-way player. Every once in a while he will have a throwback game where he gets a couple of easy shots around the basket early, which boosts his confidence on offense and intensity on defense, but he's not a guy whose going to consistently produce for you on a night-to-night basis. Carlisle had a really quick hook on him for a reason.

On the whole, I was really impressed with the package the Mavs gave up for Tyson Chandler, even if he's no longer the player he was in 2011. Calderon was a guy I thought Dallas would have to give up in a salary dump or just eat his contract - I'm stunned he became an asset in a trade considering how much money he has left on his deal. There are a lot of backup PG's in the league I'd take over him. And while Larkin has talent, the world isn't running low on 5'10 guards.

The key for the Knicks is what they do with the No. 34 pick. And if you've followed the Mavs at all, you know there was very little chance they were going to turn that pick into anything. For all the strengths of the Mavs FO, they are one of the worst drafting FO's in the league. At a certain point, that's going to come back and kill this franchise, but for now, in the YOLO win for the moment present where they build around a 36-year old Dirk, I love this trade.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Isaiah Austin: What Could Have Been

In one of the most stunning and heart-breaking twists of the pre-draft process, Baylor sophomore Isaiah Austin was found to have a genetic condition that ended his NBA career before it even had a chance to begin. He was a fringe first-round pick, but he had as much pure talent as any player in this year's draft. He's a Dallas kid, so I've watched him for a long time and I'm still kind of in shock that I won't get a chance to watch him anymore.

At 7’1 220 with a 7’5 wingspan, Austin had a very unique combination of strengths and weaknesses. He was almost unprecedented a player in the history of basketball - there has never been a player with his size with his ability to shoot 3’s, put the ball on the floor and block shots. At the same time, there were not many precedents for a player with his shockingly thin frame. He was a big man in name only - 7’1 and weighed less than Marcus Smart.

Austin was taking the positional revolution to its logical conclusion, with young big men modeling their games on Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett instead of Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal. These days, the tallest players on the court want to spend their time 25+ feet from the basket. A generation ago, a player with his skill-set would have been inconceivable. A 7’1 player who could take the ball between his legs might as well have been a work of science fiction.

The theoretical advantages for his combination of length, skill and athleticism are obvious. Austin could shoot over the top of every PF in the NBA and cover them up on defense. Like Anthony Davis and John Henson, he functioned as a mobile shot-blocking platform at the college level, with the ability to contest shots from any part of the floor. To approximate the way his length can impact the game, imagine a guard with a broomstick in each hand.

However, when that theory was put into practice at the college level, there were some pretty clear drawbacks. With his painfully thin legs and high center of gravity, Austin had a lot of trouble establishing post and rebounding position against smaller and more thickly built big men. He could be pushed off his spots easily and he had a very difficult time playing through contact. A 7’1 player with no mass is like a giant see-saw - easy to knock off balance.

In terms of projecting him to the next level, the biggest question for Austin was how much weight he could add to his frame. In the NBA, his first priority would have been putting some meat on his bones. Some guys are never able to do it - Brandan Wright has been in the league 7 seasons and he’s still 6’9 210, the same weight he was in college. Wright has excellent per-minute numbers, but his lack of strength makes it impossible to play him 30-35 minutes a night.

At the same time, Wright has gotten better in each of his seven seasons and he is only starting to peak at a time when most careers are winding down. Big men take longer to develop than guards but they tend to have much more staying power - a skilled 7’1 player like Austin could have spent two decades in the NBA. He’s not a guy who would have made an immediate impact, but he had as much long-term potential as any player in this draft.

Austin underwent shoulder surgery in the summer after his freshman season at Baylor, which prevented him from doing much work in the weight room. He didn’t need to become super bulky - just enough core strength to offer some modicum of resistance against stronger players. If he could have done that, his ceiling was frightening. There’s not much you can do against a 7’1 player who can create his own shot, stretch the floor and protect the rim.

The holy grail of a small-ball coach is a big man who can maintain the team’s floor spacing and its interior defense at the same time. For the most part, those are two mutually conflicting imperatives - a team that plays a bunch of 6’7 shooters upfront can’t protect the rim while a team that plays 7’0 gargantuas has to slow the tempo and pound the ball inside. Austin’s ceiling was a player who offered the best of both worlds - a stretch 5 who can block 2-3 shots a game.

As a stretch 4, Austin could pair with a center to give his team an almost unprecedented amount of length and shot-blocking around the rim while still letting his team team play 4-out basketball on offense. In the modern NBA, the two most important skills a big man can have are outside shooting and shot-blocking and Austin had them in spades. If Austin didn’t exist, he would have to be constructed - a player with his skill-set is the next step in the evolution of the game.

The only real historical precedent for a guy with his skill-set is Jonathan Bender, another freakishly gifted 6'11+ player whose career was cut short by injury and medical issues. It took a generation for a chance to see a Jonathan Bender 2.0 and it might take another generation for a 3.0, but the progression of the game makes that player inevitable. The dream of Jonathan Bender and Isaiah Austin has been deferred, but it will come again.

Top 13 of 2014

At RealGM, my look at the top players in this year's draft.

The Lessons of Moneyball

At The Classical, an excerpt from my e-book takes a look at the business of scouting what was actually going on in the paradigm-changing book.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Cavs and Embiid

With presumptive No. 1 overall pick Joel Embiid suffering a foot injury during pre-draft workouts, everything is suddenly in flux for the Cleveland Cavaliers. The back and the feet are the two worst places for a young big men to have medical issues and Embiid now has red flags at both.

Here's the problem for the Cavs. Embiid was the one guy in the Top 4-5 who fit with the rest of their young core. If they draft anyone else, it becomes an exercise in who don't I love anymore, which is not a game you want to be playing if you are trying to contend for a playoff spot immediately. 

- Andrew Wiggins: Even if you take Wiggins to play SF instead of SG, you can't keep Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters as your back-court of the future. The problem is simple - there won't be enough basketballs to go around. Irving and Waiters are undersized, ball-dominant scorers who need the ball in their hands to make things happen. If you take a wing at No. 1, you don't want him to be a 3-and-D player, but that's precisely what's going to happen to anyone who shares the perimeter with those two.

On the offensive side of the ball, Wiggins is a bit of a project with a pretty unrefined skill-set. He got a lot of criticism at Kansas for not being more aggressive in the half-court, but that's what happens when you have a wing player who isn't a great passer or ball-handler. Playing on a Cleveland team with Irving and Waiters, he's just going to have a hard time developing a more well-rounded offensive game and he could easily become a guy who only gets 10-12 shots a game. That's fine, but it's not what you want out of your No. 1 overall pick. 

- Jabari Parker: He's basically the same type of player as Anthony Bennett. They are both 6'8 240+ combo forwards with questionable defensive projections who can shoot and put the ball on the floor at a high level for a player with their size. In theory, either guy could play at the 3, but you rarely see guys their size who can move their feet well enough to play perimeter defense and a lot of their upside comes from their ability to hit the glass, which is negated when you are playing 25+ feet from the basket.
I think that would hold true for Bennett and Parker as well. Both those guys need to play as small-ball 4's and we haven't even gotten into the problem that creates with Tristan Thompson, whose established himself as a solid NBA PF in his own right. In essence, if you take Jabari, you have drafted three PF's in the Top 5 in 3 years and you still don't have a long-term answer at SF or C.

- Dante Exum: I'm a huge Exum fan, but he's an even worse fit in the back-court than Wiggins. He's much closer to being a primary ball-handler at the next level than Wiggins and he's going to take the ball from Kyrie and Waiters. None of those guys can really play as a SF, so a trade becomes an even more urgent priority.

With the exception of Kyrie, none of the other Top 4 picks - Waiters, Bennett or Thompson - have proven that much at the next level. However, Waiters and Thompson have shown flashes and you just took Bennett with the No. 1 overall pick. He had a miserable rookie season, but he was injured than he showed up out of shape and was playing out of position on a team that was trying to win now, so it's way way too early to write him off as a legitimate NBA player.

Worst of all, if you trade any of those guys you are selling as low as possible and then hoping a rookie can step in right away and be a primary option on a playoff team. In my mind, Irving, Waiters and Bennett can all be starters on a good team - if they are playing with a defensive-minded center who can score out of the low post. That's the other issue with not taking Embiid - you still have a giant hole at C and a bunch of defensive question marks in front of it.

It's hard for me to see a scenario where you have three No. 1 overall picks in three years, plus two more No. 4 overall picks, and you don't take a C at least once. If Embiid can stay healthy, he's the perfect complement to the players they already have and he allows them to all grow together. If they take anyone else, they have to start giving up on talented young players while they are still on their rookie contracts. There's no easy answers in Cleveland, but if they don't take Embiid, they will still a need a player who can do the things he can do and no other way to get him.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Miami's Next Step

To understand where a team is going, you need to look at where they've been. Two transactions over the last two years tell the story of what went wrong for the Heat this season:
  • Trading the No. 28 pick in 2012 for two future second-rounders from the 76ers.
  • Amnestying Mike Miller last summer
If you are going to be a franchise that worries about the luxury tax and lets go of quality players for nothing in order to avoid paying it, you can't also be a franchise that snubs the draft and gives away picks in order to clear a million dollars in cap space. Conversely, if you are going to be a franchise that ignores the draft, you had better be willing to pay a pretty penny for veteran talent in free agency.

Both these moves represent giving away assets for essentially nothing. The Heat were initially given a future first-round pick from the 76ers, but there were so many conditions on it that it was almost inevitable it would turn into two second-round picks of questionable value. In essence, they violated a cardinal rule of the NBA draft - never, never trade down.

You never see the San Antonio Spurs giving up on draft picks and you saw the fruits of that strategy in this year's Finals. The Spurs didn't beat the Heat with the top of their rotation - they beat them with players #4-9. Miller and the 2012 first-round pick were two bullets Miami didn't have over the last few weeks and the Heat were a team that was desperately low on bullets.

That's what would worry me about the rumors surrounding Carmelo Anthony. It's not that Melo isn't a great player or is he isn't capable of being one of the top 3 players on a championship team, but they already have those players on the roster. Clearing room for Melo and their current Big Three would mean clearing out the rest of their roster and starting over with spots #5-12.

The Heat don't need to hit HR's - they need to rack up a couple of singles and doubles and fill out the back end of their rotation. If they had held on to that first-round pick two years ago, they could have had someone like Perry Jones III, Festus Ezeli, Jeff Taylor, Draymond Green, Khris Middleton, Will Barton or Quincy Miller. All those guys would be the best under-25 player on their roster.

In all likelihood, all those guys would look even better playing next to LeBron James, in much the same way that Norris Cole does. You could make the argument that any one of those guys could be the 4rth best player on the Miami roster next season. That's the thing about ignoring the draft and 2 years down the road - the future comes up on you faster than you might think.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Boris Diaw and Kyle Anderson

The Spurs re-took control of the NBA Finals in Game 3 thanks to an offensive explosion in the first-half, fueled by inserting Boris Diaw into the starting line-up and going all 4-out, all the time. Diaw's numbers didn't jump off the page - 9 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 block and 1 steal on 3-6 shooting - but he had the highest plus-minus (+20) on the Spurs, just like he did in Game 1.

Diaw is just an incredibly versatile player who does so many different things well - he's got the size, reach and basketball IQ to hold his own on defense, he shoots well enough to stretch the floor, he can post up smaller players, he can put the ball on the ground and create shots for everyone else on the team and he punches above his weight on the glass. In short, he's a lot like Kyle Anderson at UCLA.

Anderson has slipped under the radar for most of the draft process because he's not an ideal athlete and he doesn't have a defined defensive position, but people have been focusing too much on what he can't do and not enough on what he can. He's 20 years old, he's 230 pounds and he has a 7'3 wingspan - he can play as a small-ball PF in the modern NBA and grown into the position as he gets older.

At the 4, Anderson just so many different things for a team. He's an elite ball-handler who can run the point full-time, he's turned himself into a respectable outside shooter and he's an above-average rebounder for a guy who spends so much time on the perimeter. Check out his stats as a sophomore at UCLA - 15 points, 9 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 2 steals and 1 block a game on 48% shooting. He knows how to play the game.

The similarities between Anderson and Diaw are striking. Given where he is projected to go in the draft - the latter stages of the first round - he's not likely to start right away, but he's going to be one of the best second-unit players in the NBA. He just helps your team in so many different ways and he's a mismatch nightmare on offense - he's got an advanced post game and an advanced dribble-drive game at 6'9 230. 

Whatever team takes him, he's going to immediately upgrade their bench and offer a ton of upside on a very affordable contract. Anderson is as talented a player as there is in this draft - he was a sophomore with a 25 PER who was the best player on a Sweet 16 team that won the Pac-12 Tournament. His floor is Boris Diaw 2.0 and he's going to be one of the steals of this year's draft. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Pattern of Basketball and The 2014 NBA Draft

It's $3.99 for a 70 page e-book with all you ever needed to know about the NBA Draft and the top players available in this year's crop.

I'll have excerpts for it around the internet and on this site in the next few weeks. If you are on this site, than it's for you.

Monday, June 2, 2014

OKC's Window

At RealGM, a piece on why the Thunder's future is still bright.

NBA Finals Preview

A few random thoughts about what should be an awesome Finals series. The Heat and the Spurs are the two best teams in the NBA and they combined for one of the best Finals series in recent memory last season. If 2014 is anything like 2013, basketball fans should be in for a treat.

1) Small-ball: Tiago Splitter and Udonis Haslem started Game 1 and were almost out of the rotation by the middle of the series. It doesn't seem likely that either team will commit to playing two big men for very long - will they both start the series playing 4-out?

2) The Heat's killer line-up: Cole/Allen/Wade/LeBron/Bosh was the line-up that swung the ECF in Game 3. I'm not sure there's any way to stop that group - there's just too much shooting around LeBron. What will be the Spurs counter?

3) The Spurs offense: The flip-side of that is I'm not sure the Heat can stop the Spurs either. They couldn't really stop them last year and they are older, less athetic and have more weak spots in their rotation. This should be a series played well into the 100's.

4) Turnovers: This is going to be the telling stat of the series. If you give either team a chance to walk into transition 3's, they are going to blow you off the floor, which doesn't even count the damage of an empty possession where they don't get a shot at the basket.

5) Tony Parker: How will his ankle hold up? He's one of the only Spurs players who can create a good look off the dribble at the end of the clock. Just as important, if he can force the Heat to put LeBron on him and chase him on defense, that could wear LeBron over the course of series.

6) Who does LeBron guard? That's one of the hole cards in Spo's deck in every series. He'll likely start the series on Kawhi, but he can stick his best player on Parker or Ginobili at any time and take them out of the game.

7) Can Duncan punish Bosh on the block? This might the most important match-up of the series. If he can force the Heat to send a double team, put another big man on the floor or get Bosh in foul trouble, that changes the whole complexion of the series.

8) How many minutes will Duncan play? Even at 38, the drop-off between him and the other Spurs big men is dramatic. The Heat ran Splitter off the floor last year and there's no way Diaw, Aron Baynes or Matt Bonner can provide enough rim protection without Duncan.

9) Dwyane Wade: The minutes where he plays without LeBron will be huge. There isn't an obvious match-up for him on the Spurs second unit and Kawhi is the only wing with the size and athleticism to handle him on the block. Expect to see a lot of Wade posting up.

10) The no respect D: The Spurs got in LeBron and Wade's heads last year by conceding open jumpers and daring them to beat them from the perimeter. Will they be able to make those shots or can the Spurs get away with playing the percentages?

11) Ray Allen vs. Manu Ginobili: If Miami can draw even between the two Hall of Fame SG's who come off the bench, it will be a huge win for them. Ginobili, like Wade, had a very uneven Finals series last year and the Spurs will need him to make plays and take care of the ball.

12) The Spurs bench: If they can get an offensive explosion from Patty Mills, Marco Bellinelli or Boris Diaw like they got from Gary Neal last year, that would be huge. Miami doesn't have the same firepower at the end of their rotation.

13) The Miami supporting cast: Will Rashard Lewis and Shane Battier be able to hold their own on D and consistently knock down 3's? Mike Miller is gone and his absence could be felt. James Jones and Michael Beasley are two guys who may need to give them something.


If both teams are 100%, I think the Spurs are the better team and they will have home-court this season, although the return to 2-2-1-1-1 means it won't be as big a deal as when it was 2-3-2. The big question coming into the series is Parker's health, but these are two teams with a lot of older players who have played a lot of minutes over the last few seasons, so don't be surprised if someone else comes up lame.

There isn't much separation between these two teams and the smallest things - the bounce of the ball, a tweak to a hamstring, a crucial call in the final minutes - could end up swinging the series. I expect it to be 6-7 games, with the Spurs getting out to an early lead and the Heat managing to claw things back to 2-2 headed into Game 5.

Here's what would worry me, if I was a Spurs fan. As the series gets into the closing stage, Miami can play LeBron 45+ minutes in the final few games. He can D up any of 4 positions and he can dominate the game on offense. He's the best player in the world and the Spurs don't have an answer for him. Everyone talks about Game 6 last year, but LeBron had 37 and 12 in Game 7. That's an issue.

I want to pick the Spurs in this series, but I keep coming back to this - LeBron James is 29 and Tim Duncan is 38. If Duncan was in his prime, this series would be a cakewalk for San Antonio. I just wonder how much he will have in the tank by Games 6-7. I wouldn't be surprised if either team wins, but when push comes to shove, I'll stick with LeBron and say Miami in 7.